Richey | About that job in Lexington

Apr. 11—It's official.

The red smoke is circling above Bud Walton Arena. A new Arkansas men's basketball coach has been hired.


Razorbacks athletic director Hunter Yurachek posted a (doctored) video Wednesday morning of that exact scenario. A riff on the white smoke that emanates from the Sistine Chapel chimney when a new Pope is chosen.

Arkansas has bestowed its blessing on John Calipari. Go forth, actually venture into the transfer portal to supplement all those five-star freshmen, and prosper.

Calipari's decision to leave Kentucky, coupled with a slow-moving portal, means the coaching carousel has been far juicier this offseason. Who knew rich donors at SMU thinking they needed a better coach to join the ACC — some offense, I guess, Rob Lanier — would have sparked all this. Lanier out. Andy Enfield in.

Which meant an opening at Southern California that Eric Musselman was eager to fill given how much of his career he's spent out West. And after Chris Beard and Jerome Tang reportedly said "no" to Yurachek and the Hogs, they presented Calipari an out for what had turned into a toxic relationship in Lexington, Ky.

Sometimes divorce is a good thing. And thus opened one of the biggest and best jobs in the country.

Alabama's Nate Oats has already gone public with his commitment to the Crimson Tide. Billy Donovan is still trying to get the Chicago Bulls through the NBA's playoff back door. Connecticut's Dan Hurley, fresh off a second straight NCAA title, said he isn't looking to get divorced. Apparently Storrs, Conn., is already too far from he and his wife's native New Jersey.

So Baylor's Scott Drew remains the perceived favorite. But what if he doesn't want to leave the basketball kingdom he's built the past two decades — and Drew is Baylor basketball at this point — to take on the wild expectations that come with coaching Kentucky?

There's still a bit of "throw names at a wall and see what sticks" to this Kentucky coaching search. If it's not Drew, who could it be?

Several names have been bandied about. Could Kentucky run it back with Rick Pitino? The St. John's coach was on the record last month when he said he'd never have left the Wildcats to take the Boston Celtics job if he could do it all over again. (Celtics fans also wish for that do-over).

Xavier's Sean Miller, Auburn's Bruce Pearl, BYU's Mark Pope, Arizona's Tommy Lloyd and Texas A&M's Buzz Williams are also populating candidate lists.

Oh, and Brad Underwood.

"Great for John," Underwood said when asked Monday night about Calipari's departure for Arkansas.

It's what the Illinois coach repeated when also asked if anyone from Kentucky had reached out about the Wildcats' opening.

But Underwood's name has been included on those candidate lists for a reason. He's 143-88 in seven seasons with the Illini. Most of those wins have come in the last five years where he's gone 117-49 — a .705 winning percentage — with a shared regular season Big Ten title in 2022, two conference tournament championships in 2021 and 2024 and now an Elite Eight run.

So what would it take to get Underwood to Lexington if he becomes Kentucky's target? The 60-year-old Illinois coach, by virtue of this year's NCAA tournament appearance and automatic one-year extension coming his way, is now under contract through the 2029-30 season.

Underwood is also in line for a lump sum $500,000 retention incentive payable April 30 if he's still the Illinois coach. He's proceeded thus far in the offseason like he will be.

The Illini have one transfer signed (Mercer's Jake Davis), one committed (Louisville's Tre White) and several others (Toledo's Dante Maddox Jr., Notre Dame's Carey Booth, Wisconsin's AJ Storr and Arizona's Kylan Boswell) in various stages of pursuit.

That $500,000 retention incentive is an annual award through the duration of the contract. Combined with an annual $100,000 escalator in Underwood's total compensation — the total of his base salary and additional compensation — it means he would be owed just more than $30 million if he fulfills the entire contract. Underwood would have to pay that full amount as a buyout to take another Big Ten job and 50 percent of it if, say, Kentucky came calling.

It falls on Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman to keep Underwood happy with the status quo. Whitman, in fact, has two basketball coaches that some other program might try and poach. While Underwood has put the Illini men back on the college basketball map, Shauna Green is accomplishing things with the Illini women's program that haven't been done in decades.

"I think it's incumbent on me as the athletic director to make sure that they both understand they have a path to success," Whitman said Monday night. "In talking with high-level competitors, which both Brad and Shauna are, the thing that matters the most to them is, 'Do we have a chance here to do what our ultimate goals are?'

"Which is to win Big Ten and national championships. My job is to make sure we're providing them with the resources — with the opportunity — to know that the opportunity exists here. It doesn't mean we're always going to go out and do it, but we need to know the road is here, that we've got the opportunity in front of us, to win at the highest level."

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is , and you can follow him on X (@srrichey).